Imara, a clinical-stage biotech company focused on hemoglobinopathies, said it raised $63 million in a series B cross-over financing to advance its lead program, an experiment drug to treat sickle cell disease, into later-stage studies.
OrbiMed Advisors and Arix Bioscience co-led the financing round, which included investment from RA Capital and Rock Springs Capital. Existing investors New Enterprise Associates, Pfizer Venture Investments, Lundbeckfonden Ventures, Bay City Capital, and Alexandria Venture Investments also participated.
“This is a transformative financing for Imara—one that will allow us to greatly expand our sickle cell disease clinical development, widen our reach into thalassemia, and build an exciting pipeline,” said Rahul Ballal, CEO of Imara. “We look forward to our upcoming clinical data analyses, engaging our clinical investigators, and working closely with sickle cell disease community to make a positive impact in this challenging disease.”
Proceeds from the investment will be used to advance the company’s lead program with IMR-687, currently in a multi-national Phase 2a clinical trial, into later-stage clinical trials, fund development of IMR-687 as a potential treatment for thalassemia, and expand the company’s pipeline.
Sickle cell disease is a rare, genetically inherited condition that alters hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that transports oxygen throughout the body, distorting red blood cells into a sickle, or crescent, shape. Painful episodes can occur when sickled red blood cells, which are stiff and inflexible, get stuck in small blood vessels. These episodes deprive tissues and organs of oxygen-rich blood and can lead to permanent damage to organs including the liver, spleen, kidney, and brain.
IMR-687 is a potent and selective inhibitor of phosphodiesterase-9 (PDE9) in blood cells, designed to target the same biochemical pathway as hydroxyurea, but without the safety issues. In cell and animal models it increases fetal globin, which prevents the polymerization of the sickled hemoglobin, thus reducing red blood cell sickling, red blood cell death, and occlusion of blood vessels. PDE9 also reduces white blood cell “stickiness,” which further reduces the blockage of blood vessels. An early stage study of IMR-687 in healthy volunteers showed it to be safe and well-tolerated.
Just days after closing the financing, Imara hired Wilhelm Scheele as chief medical officer. Scheele will guide the clinical development of IMR-687 and manage the strategy, direction, and execution of the company’s overall clinical development efforts. Scheele replaces interim CMO Shi Yin Foo of Cydan, an orphan drug accelerator that launched Imara in 2016 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
A 25-plus year veteran of large pharma, Scheele led Pfizer’s Rare Diseases clinical development programs, which included programs for Gaucher disease, a lysosomal storage disorder, and transthyretin amyloid cardiomyopathy, a hereditary form of heart disease.
“I believe Imara’s lead compound IMR-687 has real potential to both reduce the red blood cell sickling and blockage of blood vessels that are the underlying causes of the sickle cell disease pathology,” said Scheele. “Imara is poised for success and I’m confident through our shared vision and my deep bench of experience in clinical development, we will be able to make great strides in drug development for patients with sickle cell disease and also advance novel programs that enhance fetal hemoglobin, a protein critical in transporting oxygen, for other hemoglobinopathies.”
A doctor by training, Scheele began his career about 30 years ago in internal medicine at Spaarne Hospital in Haarlem, the Netherlands. He joined Pfizer when it bought Wyeth in 2009, and was the senior director of its Global Innovative Pharma, Medicines Development.
Photo: Wilhelm Scheele, chief medical officer of Imara